They came out on the wrong side of a 97-88 game against the Utah Jazz at EnergySolutions Arena late Thursday night, but it appears obvious that the Portland Trail Blazers are much improved over a year ago.

That becomes especially apparent when you consider that the Blazers have played arguably the toughest schedule in the NBA so far this year.

The Blazers fell to 15-9, the exact same record as the Jazz, with Thursday's loss. But that record may be a bit deceptive. Portland has played fewer home games so far this season than any other team in the NBA. In fact, the Blazers have played twice as many road games as home games to this point, yet they are neck-and-neck with the Jazz and Nuggets for the Northwest Division lead.

"It's been a grind, but (Friday's game against the Clippers) kind of ends that," said Blazers coach Nate McMillan. "It's important that we win (against the Clippers) to kind of finish up this first part of the schedule."

The Blazers have played only eight home games, where they have gone 7-1. They've now played 16 road games, falling to 8-8 outside the Rose Garden. Two of those losses, incidentally, have been to the Jazz at EnergySolutions Arena.

Suffice it to say that the Blazers are looking forward to the home vs. road schedule evening out.

"We still have to win them there (in Portland)," said McMillan. "It'll be good to be there for sure, but we still have to play good basketball. So far we've done that at home."

Portland, which made the playoffs every season from 1983 to 2003, fell on some hard times before its recent rebuilding project. Last season the young, talented Blazers went .500, at 41-41, missing the playoffs. This year, after having learned how to win games on the road, a trip to the postseason, not to mention a Northwest Division title, seems like a legitimate goal.

With the nucleus of guard Brandon Roy, who is 24, forward LaMarcus Aldridge, 23 and Greg Oden, 20, the Blazers are a franchise on the rise.

After losing their first three road games this year, the Blazer won eight of their next 12. They recently completed a 4-1 mark on an Eastern Conference trip, their best mark on a trip of five or more games since 2002.

The Blazers have been deadly from beyond the 3-point arc this season, making nearly 41 percent of their attempts. But they weren't on Thursday night. They went a combined 6-for-27 on their 3-pointers against the Jazz, which is just 22 percent.

McMillan attributed some of his team's shooting woes on his team's brutal schedule thus far.

"They looked a little fatigued," said McMillan of his players. "We're not as sharp as we were and some shots that we normally knock down, we didn't knock down tonight."

Roy led the Blazers with 33 points, while Aldridge netted 22. Oden, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2007 draft, had eight points and nine rebounds in his first regular season game against the Jazz.

"Brandon and L.A. (Aldridge) are two guys who have really stepped up and played well for us," said McMillan. "But we just need some help. We need a couple more guys to have good games."


E-mail: lojo@desnews.com